Sea turtles and their protectors: ‘Shell-bent’ on keeping them safe
Many of us, when we picture rangers, will think of men and women in camo gear with large rifles patrolling militaristically across endless plains of savannah. However, highly effective anti-poaching squads can come in all shapes and forms, from the teams riding the waves in the Sea of Cortez working to protect the highly endangered totoaba fish and vaquita porpoise to the scouts in shorts and sandals scouring coastlines to guard, monitor and, if necessary, relocate the nests of endangered turtles.
One such example of this occurs on the coastline of Watamu’s Marine Protected Area. Located in the Kilifi District of Kenya, these beaches provide suitable nesting areas for four species of marine turtle: Olive Ridley, Loggerhead, Green, and Hawksbill. Despite all species being threatened and protected by law, the poaching and consumption of these turtles, from eggs to adulthood, is still common along Kenya’s coast. Female turtles of all species are particularly susceptible as, when they come ashore at night and begin laying their eggs, they fall into an oblivious trance-like state, making them highly vulnerable to marauding predators and poachers. As suitable nesting areas reduce due to increasing coastal development, monitoring of these remaining precious areas becomes more important.
Local Ocean Conservation K Ltd (LOCK) has been heavily involved in the conservation of turtles and the wider Watamu coastline for more than 20 years. Its Marine Scouts patrol the beaches every single night to keep the nesting females, eggs and hatchlings safe by deterring poachers. The team also relocates nests if necessary to prevent them being drowned by the high tide. At the time of writing, on the main Watamu beach alone, this nest protection programme has safeguarded an average of 70 nests per year, totalling more than 1,000 since the organisation’s inception.
Local Ocean also runs its own ‘By-catch Rescue and Release Programme’, which includes caring for sick or injured turtles captured accidentally by local fishermen, in a specialist rehabilitation centre. In the past, turtles caught in this way would simple have been killed for food. However, thanks to a collaboration between local people and LOCK’s scouts, attitudes are changing and more than 21,000 turtles have been rescued in this way, with many being successfully released back to the open ocean.
From October 2021 to June 2022, LOCK has rescued 557 turtles that had been trapped or injured by fishing gear.
To enable the ongoing nest monitoring and anti-poaching efforts by Marine Scouts to continue, ForRangers provided a grant to fund the salaries for three out of four Scouts for a 12-month period. The Nest Monitoring and By-catch Programme Coordinator Fikiri Kiponda shared the importance of support for Watamu’s Marine Scouts:
“The Marine Scouts are from the Watamu community. They have seen our work over the years, but now they truly understand what it means to work within marine conservation and why it’s important for marine creatures, [the] environment and for future generations too. The Scouts have told us that they share stories about their work with community members, which inspires more people to look after the beaches, creek and ocean. They are proud of the work they are doing, and help to encourage community members to adopt a similar mind-set and habits. Being part of ForRangers makes them feel very proud that their efforts are recognised outside Watamu. This is very important as marine conservation patrol efforts do not receive much recognition.”
And this approach appears to be working. The data from the nesting areas shows that Watamu has consistently maintained a stable number of nests year-on-year. Tagging data has shown that adults are returning every 3-4 years on average and that, during the last 22 years, 18 marine turtles have successfully returned to nest along Watamu’s coast. LOCK’s data also shows new nesters are joining every year and, so far during 2022, 35 nests have been laid along Watamu’s beach. The number of Olive Ridley turtle nests has grown, not only on Watamu but also on the south coast, as Diani Turtle Watch has also noticed a nesting boom.
Whilst estimating marine turtle population sizes accurately is complex and fraught with error, both local fishermen and divers external to the project have reported an increase in sightings of turtles along Watamu and the surrounding coral reefs – a strong indicator that conservation efforts by LOCK and its team are working.
The former manager of LOCK, Casper Van De Geer published his PhD publication at Exeter University in 2022 on LOCK’s turtle nesting data. Today, LOCK’s tireless efforts to ensure turtle nesting sites are safe has been recognised as being of significant importance to turtle conservation in Kenya overall.
This success would not have been possible without the support of donors such as those who contributed to ForRangers’ appeals. Acquiring funding for conservation projects such as this is tough and yet so important. The work carried out by LOCK since its inception proves how effective the presence of rangers can be at protecting and increasing wildlife populations.